With the fate of hundreds of Florida death row inmates in limbo, a group of former top judges and legal officials called on the state Supreme Court to impose life sentences on nearly 400 people now awaiting execution.
The group, which includes three former state Supreme Court justices and two former presidents of the American Bar Association, filed a legal brief Tuesday in a case that could determine the fate of Florida's death penalty.
After the U.S. Supreme Court declared Florida's death sentencing law unconstitutional in January, the state's high court halted two executions and state legislators overhauled the way convicted killers can be sentenced to death.
But the Florida Supreme Court still hasn't decided what should happen to the 389 people on death row under the previous sentencing scheme. The court is taking the highly unusual step of this week of holding a second hearing before issuing a ruling, a sign that the seven-member court could be deeply divided.
The court said it wanted to hear from attorneys representing death row inmate Timothy Lee Hurst and the state on what affect the new sentencing law will have on his case.
Hurst was convicted of the 1998 murder of his manager at a Popeye's restaurant in Pensacola. A jury was 7-5 in favor of death. The judge, who used to have sole discretion, imposed the death sentence.
In March, Gov. Rick Scott signed into law a new sentencing process for those convicted of murder. The new law requires at least 10 out of 12 jurors recommend execution for it to be carried out. Florida previously required that a majority of jurors recommend the death sentence. It remains one of only a handful of states that does not require a unanimous jury decision.
The new law also requires prosecutors to spell out, before a murder trial begins, the reasons why a death sentence should be imposed, and requires the jury to decide unanimously if there is at least one reason, or aggravating factor, that justifies it.
The decision to hold a second hearing in Hurst's case prompted three former state justices, Harry Lee Anstead, Gerald Kogan and former U.S. District Judge Rosemary Barkett, to join with two former heads of the bar association and an organization representing defense attorneys to argue that an existing state law requires those now on death row to have their sentences reduced to life in prison.
The state has objected and argued the U.S. Supreme Court ruling is not retroactive.